This last book of the Bible is sometimes called the apocalypse, which means unveiling. Revelation comes from the Latin (pull back the veil) and Apocalypse comes from the Greek (with the same meaning—to unveil). In both cases it is as if you are in an auditorium at a primary school, where the pupils are going to give a play. The audience cannot see the scenery or the children up on the stage and then somebody pulls the curtains so that you see the stage and the scenery, the actors and actresses, and the lights upon them. That is a sort of revelation or apocalypse, that is to say: unveiling. That is what is happening in the last book of the Bible. There is so much about our life, about the world, and about history, so much about the past, present and future that we cannot see or understand, so in this book God pulls back the curtain and shows us the essential meaning of many of these most important things.
What we see behind the curtain is Jesus Christ, Lord of history, Sovereign God in control of all events in heaven and on earth. Revelation lets us see Jesus in charge and where he is leading all things that are happening. We received a fund raising letter from Charles Colson’s organization and on the envelope was this question that somebody had asked Chuck Colson: ‘Where was your God on September 11th?’ Revelation has an answer for that. Our God was and is in sovereign control of everything in heaven and earth, the seas, the sky, the land, including Satan and his evil minions. That is where God was, the same place he was when he told John the meaning of life and history, the same place he is now as he pulls back the thin curtains separating our physical sight from the spiritual meaning of events.
Revelation or the Apocalypse is the last book in the Bible. There is a certain finality to it. These are God’s last words to his church until we see Jesus coming with the Saints and the Angels.
Revelation is a picture of the basic outline and meaning of what has happened since the Lord Jesus Christ came down and spoke to John in the first century and gave him the message of this book. It explains in principle what it all means and what will happen till the end of time. I think this is why there was an increase of interest in Revelation in the twentieth century. For centuries nobody seemed to have given much attention to Revelation, then as the last century passed, ever more interest focused on this book.
Why is that? One reason is the amount of change that we have seen in our lifetime. Changes occur so fast and often so violently that we must ask, what does it all mean? This question has been raised even by secularists, such as Alvin Toffler, who wrote a book entitled ‘FUTURE SHOCK’. He notes that since the 1950s and 1960s, everything has changed so much that people almost feel in shell shock. Traditional ways and customs, especially since the radical sixties, have been rapidly displaced by an increasingly brutalized culture. It feels sometimes like strong winds are blowing against us and the tent pegs are not down in the ground very deep; the ropes are loose and the wind is so strong that the flaps of the tent are blowing out of control and you wonder how long the tent will last in this wind of change. What can we expect in the future?
Sociologists have noted, especially since the 1980s (and there was a lot of comment on this at the beginning of the new millennium), that the world seems to be in the grip of two tremendous and contradictory movements, which is one reason there is so much trouble amongst the nations and within the nations. On the one hand, you have the movement to centralize everything, to give more power to the governments and come up with a one-world government maybe like the United Nations. Along the path of centralization, one sees the multinational companies, which are so powerful everywhere you go, or the World Banking System trying to centralize all finance. On the other hand, you have another contradictory movement that is pulling in the opposite direction and that is what one historian has called ‘retribilization’. Great unities that were forced together, like the Soviet Union, began breaking apart in 1991, and have gone back to smaller historical units, not unlike large tribes. Especially, they have been going back to the basic religious loyalties that people had formerly. These older religious loyalties have to some degree determined how the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have divided up. In the Middle East, Sunni and Shiite loyalties have much to do with conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere. From one point of view, it is a retribilization. We do not know where it will end, but we do know our world is shaking because of these contradictory movements.
What next? No wise person would claim to be able to predict. It makes you wonder, are we just corks tossed about in a hurricane on the Atlantic coast? How can we make sense of what is happening? Hence, that is one of the major reasons that millions of people are turning afresh to Revelation where God unveils the unknown in terms of his overarching, eternal purposes.
In this chapter, we are going to deal only with introductory matters to Revelation. It would not be profitable to jump right into the first chapter until we look at some important questions about this book. The way we answer these questions helps determine how the book is understood and preached. We understand that any ancient text was written in a different historical situation. This means that we have to ask what it meant in that situation before we can correctly apply it to the times in which we live. I want to look at three questions and then make some concluding remarks of encouragement. These three questions will determine the outline of the sermon.
1. Who wrote the Book?
2. To whom was the Book written?
3. When was Revelation written?
First, who wrote this Book of Revelation? In a sense there are two answers. The first answer we are clearly told in Revelation 1:1–2, 9–10, and 19 is that it was the beloved apostle John. The Church has always believed that this is the same John who wrote the Gospel of John, the one who leaned on the bosom of the Lord at the Last Supper and also wrote the three Epistles of John.
John was one of the three disciples who were close to our Lord Jesus Christ in his earthly life. Years later, he was banished to Patmos, an island off modern Turkey, in what was called Asia Minor. John was banished there because of a terrible persecution against the Christian Church at that point in the first century. Much of the Church leadership was martyred (as were the apostles Paul, Peter, and James). But for some reason the persecutors did not kill John; they shipped him off to this desolate island, where apparently he was made to work in the mines. It was probably a sort of concentration camp. The church had spread rapidly; the Holy Ghost had come down and saved thousands and thousands, probably millions of people, so that the Roman Empire was getting uneasy. The Jews at that time appear to have been stirring up the Roman authorities to come out against the Christians. When the early Christians saw their leaders shipped off, beheaded, or crucified upside down, they began to wonder if the Church would survive.
In time of severe persecution, we naturally begin to think that God is not happy with us. Maybe God is uncaring. Sometimes people can even start to feel that way if they begin to lose their health. Has God turned against me? Am I losing everything? So, in this time of hard testing, God Almighty from the Throne sends down the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ to that concentration camp with a message or a vision of glorious encouragement to John and through him to the churches. Let me make two points about this.
First, although John is the author, the one who put pen to paper and wrote this book, it was truly the Lord of Glory who was telling him what to write. In this hard time, it was none less than the Divine Presence who was encouraging the persecuted John. That is clear in verses 8, 11 and 18. ‘“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end,” saith the Lord “which is, which was and is to come.”’ Alpha is the first letter in the Greek alphabet and Omega is its last letter (as we would say in English ‘from A to Z’). From Alpha to Omega means that everything that can ever happen at any point in history is encompassed in my plan and power, ‘for I am he who was and is and is to come.’ The Lord Jesus Christ is speaking here, so it means Jesus is God of God, the Eternal Son of God, as much God as his Father is God. Therefore, God of God in total sovereign charge is giving his beloved disciple a message of encouragement. Notice that he is saying, ‘I want you to write this and give it to these seven churches because it is not just for you, it is for the churches’ (v. 11).
The words of Jesus in verse 18 show us what the glorious news of Easter means for all our history: ‘I am he that liveth and was dead and behold I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death’. Jesus is standing there and saying, I am in sovereign control of everything that is happening, even of John’s persecution; I am in control of it; I won’t let it go but so far, and I am going to dispose it in a certain direction. I want you to remember that I died for your sins. I took on human nature, I became as human as you are without ceasing to be God; I endured the cross and I did victorious battle with the evil powers. In my resurrection, I conquered the one who has brought about this persecution. I defeated him. I won the victory and now I am going to share this victory with you, but you will have to trust me even before you see precisely how that Easter victory will be applied to your situation. So, it is the risen Lord who is behind the writing of this book of Revelation. It is his mighty message of encouragement to the church.
Secondly, these verses show us not only that the Lord himself directly inspired Revelation, but they also show us what Christ says he is doing and will be doing. In verse 7 he is going to come in judgment on the persecuting enemies of the Christian church. He says that he will do it soon. I will come back to that shortly.
Then we notice that he is walking in the midst of the earthly churches; those churches that are being persecuted. Verse 13 says that the splendid, beautiful, glorious, sovereign Christ with the very prerogatives of God Almighty, God Eternal, is walking in the midst of the seven candlesticks. It is like the church is a flame on top of the candle and Christ who is the light of the world is moving about in the flames, and thereby directly reigning in his churches.
Conquest by the Word of Christ. Ultimately, through the church Christ is going to conquer the unbelieving world in his own time and way. One of his ways of conquering will be by his tongue: his tongue came out and it was like a sharp two-edged sword (v. 16). That is a way of saying that he speaks the living word of God. In other words, when the word of truth is preached, the Risen Christ is moving about in his church. That word overcomes every lie; the word of love overcomes all hatred; the word of salvation overcomes all losses; the word of resurrection overcomes all deadness; the word of grace overcomes all unrighteousness and all opposition. Thus, as the word is proclaimed to the church, the face of Jesus begins to shine; his countenance is stronger than the sun (v. 16). The face of Jesus shines where the word is truly preached. The face of the Son of God begins to shine in people’s souls and then begins to reflect in the world and drive back the devil. So, the one who wrote it was John, but the ultimate author of the book is the Lord of Glory. Verse 1 makes that clear; it is the Revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave unto John.
The Necessity of Listening. Along these lines, Revelation 2:7 states: ‘he that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches’. The Holy Spirit is saying this; Jesus is saying this. Then notice Revelation 22:18–19, where something important about the concluding authority of this book is proclaimed:
For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book; and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things that are written in this book.
John certainly wrote it, yet Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God the Father ultimately authored it. Hence its immense, binding authority is specified.
The second question can be answered briefly. To whom was the book written?
First, it was clearly written to the seven churches of Asia—Ephesus, Smyrna, and the others in modern day Turkey (Rev. 1:11), which the Islamic people violently conquered many centuries ago. Before that time, it was a Christian area. Although there were many more than seven churches in the world, those seven churches with all their particularity, represented all the people of God, all the true congregations in various parts of the world, who were suffering under awful persecution. This is a message for all the early churches in difficult days.
Secondly, even though I shall suggest later that the message of Revelation to these churches was at least partially fulfilled in the first century in the destruction of Jerusalem, it nonetheless contains eternal truth that comes through the experience of those early churches of the way God handled their suffering and enabled them (and us) to overcome the world. What God does in that historical situation in the first century is a picture of what he will do through the ages for his Bible believing church, especially when the church falls on hard times. He is just as mighty, active, interested, and intervening when the church is under duress today.
When was Revelation written? This is a complex question over which excellent Christian scholars disagree. The historical Christian church for the most part, until the 1830s, believed that much (though not all) of what is predicted in Revelation was fulfilled about 70 ad when Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple was burned, and the Jews were scattered out of their land. You can go through Revelation and look at specific things that Jesus told John would happen to the persecutors of the church, and see that many of them happened in 70 ad.
Later, we must compare the predictions made in Revelation to the predictions Jesus made in Matthew 24, which speaks of ‘the great tribulation’. Across the ages, many Christian scholars taught that those predictions were fulfilled in principle when the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem in 70 ad. We will later discuss why the date of the writing of Revelation is so important to this issue. Here I will only note that if Revelation were written before 70 ad, then it is all the more reasonable to hold that much of it (though not all of it) was precisely fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem. But if it were written much later, then far more of it was (or is) still future.
Nevertheless, even if Revelation is thought to have been composed after the destruction of Jerusalem, it is clear that Matthew 24 was written before 70 ad, so that ‘the Great Tribulation’ still should be seen as finding its primary fulfillment in the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of the Jewish nation. From this point of view, the major issue in interpreting Revelation is this: have most of its predictions been fulfilled in the events of the first century ad, or are most of them still in the future? I shall suggest that the former approach is most fitting, but in a way, I hope, that is charitable and fair to those who hold the latter.
For the present, let us look at Revelation itself, to see if it would indicate a date of composition before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ad. There are six indications to hold that it does so. (American Vision: Atlanta, GA, 1998).
Coming Soon in Judgment. First, the victorious Jesus tells John that he is coming soon in judgment to deal with the situation oppressing the Christians in those seven churches. In verse 1, it says ‘which shortly must come to pass’; verse 3, ‘for the time is near or at hand’. ‘I am coming to you quickly’ (2:16). ‘I am coming quickly’ (3:11). ‘The third woe is coming quickly’ (11:14). ‘The things which must shortly take place’ (22:6). ‘Behold I am coming quickly’ (22:7). ‘For the time is nigh’ (22:10). ‘Behold I am coming quickly’ (22:12), and ‘Yes, I am coming quickly’ (22:20). And if this book was written in the middle sixties, and the Lord came in the destruction of Jerusalem and the death of Nero in 70 ad, then he came within three or four years of it being written. He did what he said he would do. He came quickly. That is one reason to think that this book must have been written before 70 ad. These are what Gary DeMar calls significant ‘time texts’ in the book of Revelation. (American Vision: Atlanta, GA, 1999), especially chapters 2–4, pp. 35–64. They indicate when many of its judgments would happen.
‘Coming in Judgment’. Second: what is meant by his coming? We shall later see that ‘coming’ can be used either as the last coming at the end of time or coming in judgment. It is used as ‘coming in judgment’ in many places in the Old Testament and in the Gospels. Thus, it is likely that in verse 7, it means ‘Coming in Judgment.’ The judgments come from Christ’s direct intervention, in which Christ in a sense rides upon the judgments against the enemies of his people.
‘This Generation’ Shall Not Pass. Thirdly, in Matthew 23:36 and 24:34, it says ‘this generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled.’ He talks about the destruction of the temple, and the great disaster among the Jewish nation, so that the Lord coming in this generation means that the people who were alive when Jesus was speaking, around 33 ad, would experience it themselves. In other words, before that generation had died a natural death, the Lord would have come in great judgment on his enemies, but also in great mercy on his people. Certainly there will be a final and ultimate coming of Christ on the last day (and Revelation speaks of it clearly), but we do not need to read the coming of the last day into every mention of his coming in judgment during the lifetime of this generation.
The Jerusalem Temple Still Standing. Fourth, Revelation 11:1–2 seems to consider the Jerusalem Temple as still standing when Revelation was written (as we find in Matthew 24, Luke 21, and Mark 13). The Christ whom so much of Judaism officially rejected will judge them and their now apostate temple worship as his judgment descends by means of the Roman army in 70 ad. There is no scriptural reason to postpone this historic judgment to some future rebuilt temple. We shall give detailed attention to this issue later.
The ‘Sixth King’ Seems to Have Been Alive. Fifth, Revelation appears to have been written during the life of the sixth king (or Roman Emperor). Revelation 17:9–10 states: ‘And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sitteth. And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.’ If one counts from Julius Caesar (as the first emperor), then the sixth would be Nero, who started the first official Roman persecution against the Church in 64 ad. Nero died in 68 ad, so it appears that Revelation was written before his death.
Military Imagery Fits the Jewish War of AD 70. Sixth, the military imagery used in Revelation fits with the Jewish War of 70 ad. Horses and swords are used, not tanks, airplanes, and missiles. It takes a violence of interpretation to get the military equipment spoken of to mean anything but typical first century hardware. There is no compelling reason to resort to such interpretation when the events of 70 ad literally fulfill the kinds of battles spoken of in Revelation (and Matt. 24).
Let us conclude this introduction to Revelation by listing seven benedictions and six sweet promises offered to all believers who study this book. (Thoburn Press: Fairfax, VA, 1978), 92, 93.
These seven benedictions and six sweet promises come to us in and through our union with the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘For all the promises of God in him are Yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us’ (2 Cor. 1:20). Revelation is primarily about him and what he is doing for his people.